When I started library school, I knew I wanted to be a STEM librarian. For those who aren’t familiar, STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”. I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies that I have never used, and it was my dream to put my (very expensive) education to work. That, and I love science; having a structured path forward— a means of thinking analytically— means a lot to an incredibly emotional human like myself. I depend on science to keep me happy and mentally healthy. What better way to find emotional balance than thinking about gas distribution and movement in a leaf? Sounds silly, but there’s a meditative quality to it, trust me.
I also have a degree (a very expensive degree) in English. Because that made sense to 18-25 year old me (it took me seven years to graduate – one of the many reasons for the expensive degrees). Who doesn’t want to hire a Shakespeare quoting botanist? The day I graduated school I started cursing myself for not going into Engineering and making a fortune… even though I never took physics.
Science librarianship… just the sound of it made my heart take flight. I was madly in love with the idea of bringing science literature to students and faculty. I still am. I want to do nothing more than help graduate students navigate the world of Research Data Management, undergraduate students learn about the amazing world of peer-review, and faculty create and run citizen science projects. While I still read literature, I never thought “oh, I want to be a humanities librarian” not because I thought they were unimportant but because I was meant to be a science librarian. So I was wildly surprised when I met and interviewed a botanist working in the herbarium at the University of Michigan and she started talking to me about needlepoint, cross-stitch, and knitting.
For those who are unfamiliar, an herbarium is a warehouse full of dried and preserved plants dating back as long as someone dried and preserved plants. They are currently being utilized to monitor genetic drift in plant populations, determine plant distribution changes due to climate change, and they are being used for art. Drying and preserving live, green plants on paper is not easy; preserving a 3D object on a 2D object is bound to create problems. Amateur botanists and enthusiastic naturalists end up with shriveled, useless, completely unidentifiable smears of plant material. Dried specimens of university herbarium quality are absolutely breathtaking in their stunning beauty. Much like John James Audubon wanted to capture the natural history of bird species, and included gruesome scenes of natural death to do so, botanists want to preserve as much information about the plants as possible. This means not only preserving the plants and flowers for later use and identification, but trying, as much as possible, to represent them in their natural forms.
When you dry plants for herbarium specimens you literally cook them in an oven. There’s an amazing history of plant ovens, and an even more amazing way these ovens are kept functioning; all the ovens I have seen are ancient (think, installed in the 50’s) and can only be fixed by one man working at one company— and he’s been there for 50+ years. (I’m told there are new ones somewhere out there…) They’re battered, and beautiful, and provide a steady 95-113 degree F heat to create perfectly brittle specimens. You would think they would fall apart right away, and some of the more fragile species do, but you can often handle them a bit before they are attached to special botanical paper, labeled, and filed away for 100 years minimum. (That 100 years thing is a joke. Sometimes.)
What does needlepoint have to do with any of this? When those plant specimens are pulled out of their cabinets 100 years later for digitization or research, they are often falling off the paper. One of the ways to make sure that there is any dried plant material for the next 100 years is to sew the plant back on to the paper. It’s a skill that even the most tenacious botanists and the steadiest needlepoint worker might find tedious. Think about sewing tissue paper onto stiff 100% rag paper (a strong, not very flexible paper), and you are about half way there. Add delicate pistils and stamens hanging by the most fragile thread and you are about ¾ of the way there.
(To be fair, many botanists glue or tape plant specimens back to the paper, but there are obvious complications that arise regarding genetic testing and the presence of glue, and the natural history of a plant and tape.)
When I interviewed my herbarium contact at U of M, she talked about students of botany who could tell you all of the plant names in Latin, but couldn’t dry a plant, let alone preserve a specimen, to save their lives. They have the science part down, but they don’t have the art. A truly great botanist will not only preserve a wild strawberry plant (strawberries still attached), but will leave you with an understanding of how that plant lived. Not only that, but scientists who practice the arts are more curious, creative, and are able to envision complex problems. Think DaVinci and Einstein – an artist/scientist and a scientist/violinist. Science is as much art as science. For all my various educational experiences, I never thought that the cross-stitching my Grandmother made me do to calm down would inform my botany skills.
Something I never imagined when I went to library school is that I would use both of my degrees to get a librarian job. Arts and sciences blend together to effectively communicate invaluable ideas. Creativity flourishes when multiple disciplines are mushed together. As I look forward to graduation, I’m also looking forward to collaborating with my humanities colleagues, creating interdisciplinary opportunities for my patrons, and helping to fully explore the “A” (for “Arts”) in STEAM.
If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to check out:
- The Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum
- The Atlantic‘s article on Science and Creativity
If you are interested in learning how to prepare your own herbarium specimens, check out: